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HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word.  So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection.  Now here at Horror Cult Films we appreciate films of all decades, however old, and Dr Lenera especially is a fan of horror from cinema’s distant past, so here he brings you a review of a not widely seen gem from the 1930s.



Available on DVD:now, as a special feature on the HOUSE OF WAX [1953] DVD

Directed by:Micheal Curtiz

Written by:Don Mullahy, Carl Erickson

Starring:Lionel Atwill, Glenda Farrell, Fay Wray, Frank McHugh

Running time:88 mins

Reviewed by:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic


In London, sculptor Ivan Igor is visited by his employer, who proposes setting fire to the unpopular museum to collect the insurance money.   He goes ahead, there is a fight, and Ivan is knocked out and left to supposedly perish in the flames.  Thirteen years later, Igor resurfaces in New York City for the launch of his new wax museum, though his burnt hands have led to his work being done mostly by lesser artists.  The opening coincides, though, with the disappearance of several bodies from the morgue, and reporter Florence Dempsey is determined to solve the case………..


Considering that, in my opinion anyway, they are rather creepy, I find it surprising that waxworks have not featured in as many horror films as they have.  The especially sinister idea that wax figures may actually be real people who have been killed has been the basis for four films though, and this 1933 original version, which was remade once officially [1953’s House Of Wax, of which the more recent film of that title had little to do with ] and once unofficially [1973’s Terror In The Wax Museum], is probably the best.  It was made during a great boom period for the horror movie.  Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein had been enormously popular, and while that studio launched into a constant [for a few years, anyway] series of chillers, other studios started to join in.  Paramount offered The Island Of Lost Souls and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [two of the finest and strongest horror films of the whole decade], Warner Bros released the middling Dr X, RKO presented the exciting The Most Dangerous Game and the incredible King Kong, and United Artists unleashed the fascinating White Zombie. Despite its mediocrity, Dr X was a big success for Warner Bros, so they decided to reunite that film’s stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, as well as some of it’s technical crew including director Micheal Curtiz, in a follow up. Based on a play by Charles Belden, The Mystery Of The Wax Museum was made in early two-strip technicolor, which combined red and green dyes, the effect of which is hard to ascertain now because prints are now very faded.  Upon release it did well, but when House Of Wax was released, this earlier version seemed to fade into obscurity, a shame because it is the better film.  A print was found and released with much fanfare in 1970, though there were claims that that prints had been around earlier, just rarely seen.  Warner Bros’ general treatment of this movie was very poor indeed.  I first saw it when I bought the House Of Wax DVD a couple of years ago, it’s on there as an extra feature, though I had no knowledge of this [the DVD doesn’t advertise the fact] and it was a wonderful surprise when I found it on there.

The Mystery Of The Wax Museum gets off to an uneasy start with Igor’s wax figures clearly being played by real people, some of whom you can apparently see blinking and breathing, though on the two occasions I’ve watched this movie I haven’t spotted any of this.  Never mind, we launch into a fight amidst the burning wax sculptors, with fairly gruesome shots of the melting figures, and then the film starts to emphasise the investigative elements of the story.  In some ways, this is less a horror movie than a newspaper mystery, but it’s obvious very early what is going on, so as a mystery it doesn’t quite work.  Still, there’s lots of fast, wisecracking dialogue in the tradition of many other Warner movies of the time, and some of it is quite outstanding.  Florence’s banter with her editor Jim is very funny and ends with a surprising twist, while in another scene she says to a cop “how’s your sex life”?  This movie was made just before the repressive Hays Code came into being, and so the filmmakers were also able to get away with a character, called Professor Darcy, who is a drug addict [he was changed to an alcoholic in the more lurid but actually less adult 50s version].   For horror fans, there’s perhaps too much emphasis on this stuff, but the picture moves quite fast and gathers speed towards the end.  More typical horror elements are brought in, such as Igor developing an obsession with Florence’s roommate Charlotte, and an unmasking scene that rivals that of the 1925 version of The Phantom Of The Opera.  Things wind up very predictably- so many horror films of the time climaxed with the police saving the day by breaking into the monster’s lair- and this one is over rather too quickly.

Some of the best scenes in the movie are actually early on.  There’s a great scene in a morgue which combines black humour and shivery horror, where two attendents are with the body of a recently murdered girl, who some say was killed by her husband.  The sheet covering the body moves as he body obviously sits up, supposedly due to effects of the embalming fluid, and one of the men says how  “see, the wife had to have the last word”.   Then, when the men have gone, the body sits up again and it’s a hideously deformed figure who starts to stalk around the room.  Now I think the filmmakers missed a beat by showing Igor’s makeup so early, in fact it should have been saved for the unmasking scene, but there’s no doubt the makeup is amongst the creepiest of the 1930s.  The guy is obviously burnt but looks really demonic, and his long coat and hat give him a striking look.  There’s also a great suspense scene later where Florence is snoooing around and has to hide from the monster.  Silence is really well used in these scenes and several others, while Anton Grot’s sets are strikingly off-kilter, especially those behind the new wax museum-they have a touch of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari about them.  Being a Micheal Curtiz film [remember those duelling shadows in the Error Flynn movies?], there’s lots of play with shadows, and there are times where this almost reaches Gothic brilliance.  In my opinion, though, the two aspects of the film don’t quite gell and the horror element, in particular, suffers for it.

Curtiz never seems to make it onto lists of great film directors but he made a great many fine movies and was incredibly diverse, with films ranging from this to Casablanca to The Adventures Of Robin Hood. This particular movie allows him indulge a distinctive visual style which every now and again he explored.   Ray Rennahan’s colour photography is extremely faded now, but the washed out look sometimes look oddly appropriate to the story.  Likewise, Lionel Atwill was a highly underrated actor in my opinion-he’s often very natural, with little of the ham that some criticise about film of this era, and his restrained but subtly quite frightening performance makes a nice foil for the exuberance of Glenda Farrell as Florence.  This type of character soon became too commonplace in 30s films but Farrell puts her own quirky spin on it.  Fay Wray’s role is too small but, as usual she gets her chance to scream!  As with most films from this time except for the opening and end titles.  Overall I don’t think The Mystery Of The Wax Museum quite belongs up there with some of the other greats from this era [the first half of the 1930s was an incredible time for the horror movie], it has a certain awkwardness, but it’s very interesting, both a product of its time and as an odd blending of styles and genres.  The bad treatment it has generally got from its studio is appalling.

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

[pt-filmtitle]The Mystery of the wax museum[/pt-filmtitle]

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 2703 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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